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Secret Israeli Business Deals With Gulf States May Herald Public Ties

Israeli tech firms are engaged in secret, extensive business dealings with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, a trend that could be a harbinger of more open cooperation, Jonathan Ferziger and Peter Waldman reported in Bloomberg Businessweek on Thursday.

According to Shmuel Bar, a former Israeli intelligence official who developed a program that finds terrorist threats on social media, a high-ranking Saudi official contacted him two years ago while seeking help in identifying online extremists.

Bar worked with the Saudis through a front company, developing a system to “[ferret] out Saudi jihadis with a software program called IntuScan, which can process 4 million Facebook and Twitter posts a day.” He was later tasked with carrying out public-opinion research for the Saudi royal family.

In turn, Bar said that he “meets freely these days with Saudis and other Gulf Arabs at overseas conferences and private events.” His experience is indicative of a broader trend, Ferziger and Waldman noted, where “trade and collaboration in technology and intelligence are flourishing between Israel and a host of Arab states, even if the people and companies involved rarely talk about it publicly.”

These changes have less to do with outright peace than with commonality of interests, Ferziger and Waldman observed:

Peace hasn’t come to the Middle East. This isn’t beating swords into plowshares but a logical coalescence of interests based on shared fears: of an Iranian bomb, jihadi terror, popular insurgency, and an American retreat from the region.

Still, these business deals are having a significant impact. The Israeli government approves of commercial ties with its neighbors, with the exception of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. “If it’s a country which is not hostile to Israel that we can help, we’ll do it,” Bar explained. Regarding the Arab boycott of Israel, Bar said, “It doesn’t exist.”

While the boycott is still officially on the books, meaning that Israeli involvement must be cloaked by intermediaries, “the volume and range of Israeli activity in at least six Gulf countries is getting hard to hide,” Ferziger and Waldman reported.

They observed that in October 2016, prominent Saudi commentator Salman al-Ansari called for a “collaborative alliance” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would be rooted in open commercial ties and cement their positions as “twin pillars of stability” in the Middle East.

During the Syrian civil war, Israel’s port city of Haifa emerged as a transshipment hub for Turkish goods being moved to the Gulf. Freighters from Turkey currently bring 20 trucks a week to the port, where they’re processed and sent on to Jordan. For a time, the shipments made it to Saudi Arabia, though that halted two years ago after the Israeli connection was publicly exposed. Ayoob Kara, Israel’s point-man for engagement with the Arab world, is now working with Jordanian and Gulf officials to restore the route to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. If that happens, Ferziger and Waldman noted, it “would quintuple Turkish truck traffic overnight.”

“Very soon things will be out in the open, and you’ll see Netanyahu landing in one of these countries,” Kara said.

Others, such as former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, advised Israeli companies to proceed with discretion, saying that for now “everything has to be under the radar.”

[Photo: Maher Najm / Flickr ]